UNC ROI Research Opportunities Initiatives in Pharmacoengineering

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University are pioneering a new field known as pharmacoengineering, which blends engineering and life sciences. Thanks to new breakthroughs, the team of researchers is exploring new methods in the fight against glioblastoma, the most common type of brain tumor and one of the deadliest forms of cancer by creating a new drug delivery system to fight the tumor. Researchers hope pharmacoengineering will prove one day to be the key in curing many diseases. For more on this research, watch the video.

Shawn Hingtgen, PhD: I’m Shawn Hingtgen. I am an assistant professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, in the division of molecular pharmaceutics. We work in glioblastoma, or GBM. It’s the most common primary brain tumor but also one of the deadliest forms of cancer. The current standards of care actually were developed about thirty years ago in the mid-1980s, but it’s just really not effective. It only gives patients about a year to survive. We really need some new, innovative, and outside-the-box technologies to combat this thing because standard therapies are not going to work for this.

Michael Jay, PhD: So pharmacoengineering is a blending of the engineering sciences with life sciences as they relate to drugs and drug delivery systems, so that you can get the right amount of drug at the right place for the right time.

Frances S Ligler, D Phil, D Sc: The promise of pharmacoengineering is more effective therapy and much more efficient treatment of disease states.

Shawn Hingtgen, PhD: The ultimate dream would be that we could actually cure brain cancer, so one of the things that our lab is trying to pioneer is the ability to actually take your skin and then morph your skin directly into your brain stem cells; we can then load those with drugs and when we implant those back into you, they’ll crawl and find your tumor and start to kill it.

We realized we needed a scaffold- we needed an engineering technology to let us do that.

Elizabeth G. Loboa, PhD: We got together and I said, ‘well, we have created in my lab specific scaffolds that we know control a localized delivery and a timing of the chemotherapeutic.’

Shawn Hingtgen, PhD: Between Elizabeth’s ability to create just about anything out of her technology and our flexibility with the stem cells, it’s fun to just brainstorm with new applications, new ideas, and new directions.

Frances S Ligler, D Phil, D Sc: The engineers need the biologists to understand the problems and the biologists need the engineers to help figure out the solutions.

Elizabeth G. Loboa, PhD: It really is a match made in heaven.

Samuel Lai, PhD: We’re really trying to cultivate a culture of innovation, and basically have the resources to test and realize those new ideas.

Michael Jay, PhD: The ROI funding gives us that extra boost to try some higher risk, high reward things. 

Elizabeth G. Loboa, PhD: Whether it’s through licensing to other companies or entrepreneurial endeavors and start-ups, the IP component is really critical and very important to our research.

Fred Eshelman, Pharm D: The pharmaceutical industry is always looking for better ways to deliver the right drug, at the right dose, in the right patient, at the right time. A lot of this pharmacoengineering is tapered to do exactly that.

Samuel Lai, PhD: Having an industry partner or creating our own company could really help position ourselves as the nation’s leader in this particular area.

Michael Jay, PhD: We expect to be a beacon for people who are looking for pharmacoengineers. So whether you are looking to hire our graduates or you are looking to establish a company here, you’ll know you’ll have a community of people who are focused on this effort.

Fred Eshelman, Pharm D: We can put hand over heart and say ‘ok, this stuff originated in North Carolina, we own this.’ This should be a priority area for funding in our state.

Shawn Hingtgen, PhD: At the end of the day, the innovation is exciting but if we get to actually start to treat patients and change the standard of care and solve some of these medical needs, that’s incredibly rewarding

(Left) Julie Nguyen (R), a high school student from the NC School of Science and Math, learns valuable laboratory skills as she works alongside Dr. Josie Bodle (L), a postdoctoral fellow in the Joint UNC & NC State Department of Biomedical Engineering. (Right) Christina Parker engages in cutting-edge research as a PhD student in the laboratory of Dr. Sam Lai. Photos by StoryDriven Media Group.



  • Produced by Storydriven Media Group
  • Michael Jay, PhD: Executive Vice Dean, Chief Academic Officer, and Professor, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy
  • Nancy Allbritton, PhD: Debreczeny Distinguished Professor and Chair, UNC and NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Shawn Hingtgen, PhD: Assistant Professor, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Division of Molecular Pharmaceuticals
  • Samuel Lai, PhD: Assistant Professor, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Division of Molecular Pharmaceuticals
  • Thomas Caranasos, MD: Assistant Professor, UNC School of Medicine
  • Lauren Frank: Executive Assistant, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy
  • M. Gregory Forest, PhD: Grant Dahlstrom Distinguished Professor, UNC Department of Mathematics
  • Michael J. Miley, PhD: Assistant Professor, UNC School of Medicine
  • Alexander Kabanov, PhD: Mescal S. Ferguson Distinguished Professor, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy
  • Frances S Ligler, D Phil, D Sc: Lampe Distinguished Professor, UNC-CH and NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Elizabeth G. Loboa, PhD: Adjunt Professor, UNC and NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Ke Cheng, PhD: Associate Professor, NC State College of Veterinary Medicine & UNC and NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Ruben Carbonell, PhD: Frank Hawkins Kenan Distinguished Professor, NC State Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering
  • Zhen Gu, PhD: Assistant Professor, UNC and NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Fred Eshelman, Pharm D: Chairman, Furiex Pharmaceuticals; Founder Eshelman Ventures LLC
  • Christopher S. Brown, PhD: Vice President for Research and Graduate Education
  • Erin D. Hopper, PhD: Research Director, Office of Research and Graduate Education

Homepage photo: Dr. Shawn Hingtgen introduces “Sara Belllum”, an artificial brain model that he uses in his research on therapies for glioblastoma. Photo by StoryDriven Media Group.